The Forge paradigm of RPG design taught me something very important: the power of your character is incidental, it is the power of the players that matters.Â The Forge has, rightly I think, primarily defined power in roleplaying as authority distribution.Â Who has authority to say what things about what aspects of play and have those things stick?
Taking these two things together, it becomes clear that distributing authority is an important design consideration.Â If it is important that players have power, and they primarily derive power from authority, then who has what authority is a good thing to think about.Â However, I don’t think that authority is the only component of power.Â There is at least one more, though there may be others I have not yet identified.
That other component of power is context.Â If Harry (the player) has authority over Sally (the character), and Bob (the player) has authority over Frank (the character), and mechanically both characters have the same mechanical input into the game, it might appear that the two players have equal power over and within the game.Â But things are not that simple.
Imagine that Harry has been a member of the group for years, and that he’s played Sally for all those years.Â Sally is a complex character, one the players are invested in to one degree or another, and most importantly Sally has an extensive fictional history with the group that has been demonstrated in play.Â Sally has a rich context that has been ‘shown not told’.Â Further imagine that Bob is new, it’s his first night.Â Thus his character Frank is an unknown quantity to the group.Â Frank may have a back story, but that’s all it is: backstory.Â The group hasn’t seen Frank in action, and thus any fictional action that Frank takes will be viewed from a clean perspective.
Harry, with Sally, seems to have more power than Bob does with Frank.Â This is because any fictional choice Sally makes will be thematically interpreted in terms of the context of all her past decisions in play.Â This imbues those choices with more force and meaning.Â This does not mean that Bob is screwed and can’t contribute, but his ability to make thematic statements is significantly less than Harry’s.Â It’s not a question of authority, but one of context*.
*I admit that, in a sense, this is still about authority.Â Who has authority over context-rich fictional elements.Â However, I don’t see any simple way to equally distribute authority if that is the case, and I feel that shifting the idea of authority in that way weakens it severely as a useful term.